Defending Ignatius Reilly
Above you can see Self, in the attractive Ignatian millinery, with S. Frederick Starr and, on the right, the infamous New Orleans boulevardier Ken Bickford. Fred is an academic, jazz clarinetist, author, and the owner of Lombard Plantation, an 1825 house and small property that he and his wife bought and restored in the New Orleans Bywater neighborhood. Fred is also a devotee of A Confederacy Of Dunces, and was delighted that when I visited him on Sunday night, I recognized the bottle of Ignatius’s favorite tipple. Fred told Ken and me that many years ago, Thelma Toole, the mother of Confederacy author John Kennedy Toole, has given him a personal tour of all the sites in town that her son, who died a suicide before his novel was published, used in his book. Can you imagine? It’s like Dante’s poet pal Guido Cavalcanti squiring a fellow around Florence.
Well, my valve slammed shut when I read the new essay in The New Yorker by Tom Bissell, in which he concluded that ACOD is overrated.
I first read “A Confederacy of Dunces” when I was in my early twenties. Of that reading I can recall only a vivid, tingling antipathy, akin to walking into a party and realizing instantly that you want to leave. The book, which has become a classic of Southern literature and a mainstay on college syllabi, is entertaining—by any metric, the work of a hugely promising young writer. It’s also repetitive and numbingly antic. Shorn of its unusual publishing history and its author’s heartbreaking fate, it’s hard to imagine it receiving anything resembling the acclaim that occasioned its 1980 publication, much less the Pulitzer Prize that it was awarded, by a jury eager to tweak the New York publishing leviathan. Toole would almost certainly have published better novels had he been given the opportunity to write them.
Still, as I settled into the book again, twenty-three years later, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. For one, there is its impish spirit; Toole’s jolly novel of New Orleans remains somewhat anomalous in the Southern canon, especially in how it skewers that canon’s presiding deity. “Veneration of Mark Twain is one of the roots of our current intellectual stalemate,” Ignatius asserts at one point. At another, he refers to Twain as a “dreary fraud” and announces, “I have never seen cotton growing and have no desire to do so.” “A Confederacy of Dunces” might be the only novel ever written about New Orleans in which jazz is described as “obscene.”
One of the novel’s particular virtues is its screwball dialogue, the closest approximation of which might be that of the Coen brothers’ great comedic films: “The Big Lebowski,” “Raising Arizona.” Of the writers of his era, Toole most closely resembles Joseph Heller, William Gaddis, and Stanley Elkin, all of whom were partial to dialogue-heavy novels. But Toole’s characters don’t use human speech to exchange useful information. Although they argue constantly, they never do anything so banal as change their minds. They’re more akin to musicians, each waiting for a chance to solo. Early in the novel, Ignatius stands outside a department store with his mother while a dim-witted police officer named Mancuso attempts to arrest him:
This confrontation sets the novel in motion, for, shortly after Ignatius and Irene make their escape, Irene smashes her car into a building, causes a thousand dollars in damage, and forces Ignatius to go to work to help pay off her debts.
OK, stop there. I know people who can’t stand ACOD, and know it from near the beginning. It has to do with the fact that Ignatius Reilly is a grotesque. He is slovenly, arrogant, gross, flatulent, rude — just an awful person. There are some folks in this world who cannot stand the thought of reading a book about such a character. He makes them nervous. The whole world Toole brings vividly to life makes some people nervous. I’m not exactly sure why — I think it has to do with the fact that it’s hard to put the characters into neat boxes; this is something that people who aren’t from the South often find hard to figure out about the South. Anyway, I think Bissell is being true to his own instincts. Tom Bissell is from Michigan. Everybody from New Orleans who has read ACOD recognizes instantly how realistic the characters are. People really are like that down here! I don’t want to say, “He’s a Yankee, he wouldn’t understand,” because that’s a crude judgment to make. On the other hand, I have seen ACOD have that effect on people who come from cultures that recoil from grotesques.
My wife, for example, raised in suburban Dallas within a middle-class Southern Baptist world. She finds Ignatius awful, and nothing about him and his world interesting. She reads far more widely in fiction than I do, and has better taste in it. Her response to ACOD is something like my response when I tried to read Henry Miller in my early 20s: there is nothing about him or his world that I find interesting, or at least the things that are interesting are inaccessible because the world Miller creates is so repulsive.
Back to Bissell and ACOD. He didn’t like the book when he first read it, so why would he read it again? Maybe to see if he was wrong the first time? Fair enough. Lo, he finds Ignatius just as disgusting this time around:
These antics, so jarring to modern sensibilities, can nevertheless be hilarious. (The Levy Pants sequence especially is a comedic tour de force.) But Ignatius simply is not compelling enough to make lovable the repulsive qualities that his creator takes immense pains to describe, such as the smell of his body (“old tea bags,” we’re told), his filthy bedsheets, or his volcanic flatulence. By the time I hit page 241, which finds Ignatius feeling “worse and worse” and describes how “great belches tipped out of the gas pockets of his stomach and tore through his digestive tract,” I suddenly recalled why I found the novel so repellent the first time I read it. It’s not that I “don’t like” or “can’t relate” to Ignatius; no serious reader should care about such things. It’s more that, at every turn, Ignatius is exactly the character you expect him to be. Late in the novel, one character asks him, “Don’t you ever shut up?” He doesn’t. That’s the problem.
This is the first time I’ve ever encountered anyone complaining that Ignatius is not lovable. Of course he’s not lovable! You aren’t expected to see him as some farty Ewok. Do you think Flannery O’Connor’s characters are lovable, in the conventional sense? It’s silly to expect characters in film or fiction to be lovable; we only have a right to expect them to be interesting.
And Ignatius is that. He’s an intelligent, educated man who is so alienated from the world around him that he exists in a constant state of rebellion against it. But he is also lonely and a stranger to himself. He doesn’t recognize his own vices, which, after the laughter of his antics dies down, make him a tragic figure. It is an old story that professional comedians are often really sad people who developed an acute comic sense to cope with their sense of outsiderness. I used to know a guy — not a comedian — who is very, very funny, and who denounces with Ignatian ferocity and (in his case, knowingly comic) pomposity about What’s Wrong With The World. He used that humor as a coping strategy. Deep down, he was never comfortable in the world. Maybe he was a man out of time. Ignatius certainly is.
What makes Ignatius so amusing is that he is captive to his own reality, the disjunction of which with the real world is inherently funny. What makes him so tragic is that he can’t deliver himself from that world. The novel ends with him escaping New Orleans. The idea is maybe living in a crazy city made him crazy, so finding a new place to live could mean a new start for him. But the reader (well, this reader) is sure that wherever Ignatius goes, he will not be able to escape himself.
I love this book in part because I am fascinated by grotesques, and because I know the world Toole writes about is real. I didn’t grow up in New Orleans, but these people in the book have their close analogues all over south Louisiana. I also love it because though I am a much nicer and far less flatulent man than Ignatius Reilly, I share his quixotic sense of being at odds with modernity. Maybe one difference is that I understand myself enough to laugh at myself, I dunno. The guy who wrote a book talking of the virtues of a key figure of the early Middle Ages, and what they have to teach us living in the ruins of modernity, is naturally going to find a sense of affinity with Ignatius. After all, Boethius, Ignatius’s philosophical lodestar, was a contemporary of St. Benedict’s.
Anyway, it will not surprise you to learn that Bissell does not care for the novel because it is politically incorrect by 2021 standards (as it was by the standards of the early 1980s, when it was published, but we used to be more sophisticated and less puritanical than we are now):
MacLauchlin, Toole was influenced by Cervantes, Dickens, and Evelyn Waugh. From Cervantes, he likely inherited his love of episodic, picaresque narrative; from Dickens, his fondness for grotesque yet effective characterization; from Waugh, his taste for mock-heroic snobbery. “With the breakdown of the Medieval system,” Ignatius writes, in one of his treatises, “the gods of Chaos, Lunacy, and Bad Taste gained ascendency.” That Toole might have been only half kidding when giving voice to such pronouncements was suggested forty years ago, by the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. “A fair amount of the author’s ridicule and venom is reserved for female liberals and liberationists,” Rosenbaum noted, while the book’s “ostensible right-wingers” (such as Mancuso, the moronic police officer in desperate search of someone to arrest) are usually depicted “as lovably harmless and ineffectual creatures.” Rosenbaum, who admired the novel, nevertheless judged it to be “reactionary.” Well, there’s reactionary and there’s reactionary. Ignatius doesn’t want to go back to the nineteen-fifties, or even the eighteen-fifties. He wants to go back to the thirteen-fifties.
Well, yes — and that’s why it’s funny! What kind of puritanical mindset casts a suspicious glance at ACOD because it makes fun of the Freud-obsessed feminist Myrna Minkoff? Claude Robichaux, the suitor of Ignatius’s mother Irene, is always ranting about the “communiss” — Toole’s obvious mockery of right-wing conspiracy thinking. It requires motivated reasoning to see Claude and Patrolman Mancuso as “lovably harmless” but think that Toole is unfairly trashing feminists and liberationists (I guess by that he means the Crusade for Moorish Dignity that Ignatius organizes).
This might account for [editor Robert] Gottlieb’s complaint that “Dunces” wasn’t “about anything.” In one sense, the critique is well founded. Toole’s characters seem bizarrely determined—even proud—to learn nothing from their choices, other people, or the world around them.
Yes, and that is the point! More:
Toole either didn’t care about or couldn’t achieve a traditionally satisfying narrative. What did interest him? Character, mainly, though a peculiarly prescribed form of it. Over and over in “Dunces,” Toole launches his obdurately one-dimensional creations into predicaments that they are comically incapable of understanding, and then mercilessly records the results. Artistically speaking, this is the book’s core problem: the thing that makes it interesting is also the thing that makes it unsatisfying.
But character is everything in that novel! Everyone in that book is a lesser version of Ignatius — everyone except Jones, the black janitor, whose shuck-and-jive mannerisms are the mask he wears. Jones, ostensibly the Fool, is the only one in the novel who has everybody’s number.
I honestly don’t understand complaining about a novel in which nobody Learns Valuable Lessons, at least not when that novel is A Confederacy Of Dunces. We’re not talking War And Peace here. P.G. Wodehouse wrote eleven uproarious comic novels about Jeeves and Wooster. Nobody ever learns anything from the comic adventures of the characters. They all remain more or less the same. Those novels are comic masterpieces. Has any critic ever raised an objection to them because Bertie Wooster never learns from his mistakes, or Aunt Dahlia fails to become a nicer person, etc.?
What a weird essay Bissell has written. But one that is sadly true to our time. We have forgotten how to laugh at ourselves. We have forgotten how to laugh. We can’t just sit back and smile at the folly of humankind. No sir, we have to be Serious, and sternly moral. I guess we are all Yankees now. Ignatius’s absurd reactionary crusades are all about trying to create utopia (as are those of his former girlfriend, leftist Myrna Minkoff), but you cannot build a pavilion in Paradise with the crooked timber of humanity. One of the genius themes of this book is to reveal the ridiculousness of utopia. Ignatius, a very lonely man, can only see others as projects (again, as does Myrna). He doesn’t see them in their humanity. The scenes in the Prytania Theater, when he rages at the actors on screen, reveal a profound darkness in his soul. He’s not just a world-class eccentric, but like some other utopians, he actually hates people, because he hates himself.
What a glorious book! Don’t let clueless Yankee moralism ruin it for you.
The other night, sitting around with Fred and Ken talking over pizza, and telling funny stories about characters we’ve known, Fred said, “Isn’t this what life is about? Enjoying food and wine, and talking pleasantly about the world around us?” Of course it is. Fred Starr is not from New Orleans (he was born in Cincinnati), and he lives most of the time in Washington now, but he told me that he was drawn to New Orleans is because it is so humane in its eccentricities. You can gallivant all over the city and meet people today who are a lot like all the characters in A Confederacy of Dunces. Not too many people are going to hold you to high account for morally improving yourself. They will judge you, though, on your gumbo. After leaving Fred and Ken, and the best evening I have had in almost a year of lockdown, to drive back to Baton Rouge, I thought, “O Fortuna, why don’t I live in this town?”